Banks are paying more mind to mental health

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The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod in Hyannis, Mass., wasn’t preparing for a pandemic when it decided last year to cover the cost for employees who wanted access to popular meditation apps — it just wanted give them another tool to manage stress, said Lee Ann Hesse, the bank’s chief engagement officer.

The offer proved timely, though, given how the COVID-19 crisis drove up bank employees’ stress levels. They were facing fear and uncertainty about their health and the health of loved ones; financial strain after family members lost jobs; and, for parents, the struggle of balancing child care and online education, Hesse said.

“These are really not easy days for anyone,” she said. “So the apps proved popular.”

In the spring, at least 20 of the bank’s 165 employees — or roughly 12% — requested reimbursement of around $60 to $70 each for annual subscriptions to apps like Calm and Headspace. Others who signed up for subscriptions opted to pay for them out of their own pockets, Hesse said.

When Mike Jacobson founded NebraskaLand National Bank in 1998, his goal was to create a workplace that supported employees at every level, including offering help with personal matters from domestic violence to a cancer diagnosis.
When Mike Jacobson founded NebraskaLand National Bank in 1998, his goal was to create a workplace that supported employees at every level, including offering help with personal matters from domestic violence to a cancer diagnosis.

While they could not have predicted the myriad challenges posed by COVID-19, human resources executives at banks featured among American Banker’s Best Banks to Work For had been firming their commitment to employee mental health long before the pandemic arrived.

The trend, they said, has been driven by a recognition that workplace benefits should address the mental and emotional challenges faced by employees and their families, from struggles with anxiety to caring for children with special needs.

For banks, the challenge is finding the right tools to help employees meet a wide range of challenges.

“What helps one person doesn’t necessarily help someone else,” Hesse said.

At the heart of most benefits packages for mental health is the employee assistance program, or EAP. Generally provided by outside contractors, the programs offer services like short-term counseling that help employees deal with personal or work-related problems affecting their job performance.

It wasn’t long ago that employees would be hesitant to discuss mental health struggles, fearing that doing so might jeopardize their careers. But that has changed in recent years, as younger generations have entered the workforce. Even before the pandemic hit and spurred more discussion about mental health, younger employees were already opening up — and inspiring their older colleagues to do the same.

Bethany Corum, chief operating officer at the $3 billion-asset Capital City Bank in Tallahassee, Fla., said that, while younger employers are more likely to take advantage of mental health benefits the bank is offering, “we have seen it across all age groups and we were seeing that even before the pandemic.

Read more: Best Banks to Work For

Corum herself has been more open about the steps she takes to control her diagnoses of depression and anxiety. “I couldn’t have had that same conversation probably even 10 years ago. There would have been a real label given to me,” she said.

There is a cost to adding mental health benefits to existing health plans, but HR executives say it’s worth the expense because it gives employees some extra peace of mind that allows them to stay more focused at work.

In the past, banks might have let go of employees with mental health issues rather than trying to address the underlying causes, said Mike Jacobson, the chairman, president and chief executive of the $850 million-asset NebraskaLand National Bank in North Platte, Neb.

When Jacobson founded the bank in 1998, he wanted to create a workplace that supported employees at every level, including offering help with personal matters from domestic violence to a cancer diagnosis.

“If you’ve got employees that you value, you’re going to do what you need to keep them productive, happy, healthy and safe,” he said.

More banks are looking to add mental health benefits to existing health plans or expand on what they already offer.

“It’s been an eye-opener, just the whole COVID experience and its impact on people’s lives at home and work,” said Steve Braun, senior vice president of human resources at FNBC Bank in Ash Flat, Ark.

The $570 million-asset bank has just over 100 employees and pays about $20 per employee for its EAP, Braun said. The benefits include six free counseling sessions a year per employee.

The EAP provider has worked on an individual basis to add sessions as needed, Braun said. Based on the need this year, the bank is looking to increase the formal cap, he said.

“Even if it just doubled, that would cover the majority of situations that do come up,” and the extra cost would be “money well spent,” he said. Between 20% and 30% of bank employees and covered family members use the benefit in any given year, he added.

Centric Financial in Harrisburg, Pa., was looking for more in-person resources when it switched EAP providers a few years ago, even though it meant higher costs, said Christine Pavlakovich, the $1 billion-asset bank’s chief human resources officer.

“It’s well worth it,” she said.

This was a no-brainer whatever the cost would have been
Andy Marshall, FirstBank Southwest's CEO, on the bank's decision to cover the cost of employees' virtual counseling sessions during the pandemic.

The catalyst was an employee who was having trouble getting local help for a family member under the previous arrangement, Pavlakovich said. “EAPs are confidential. So that employee really took a leap of faith to come to me to say, ‘I tried and it’s not working. I need some help.’ ”

Though some people remain uncomfortable discussing mental health issues, the old stigmas are fading, Pavlakovich said. If someone exhibits unusual behavior, for example, co-workers are showing compassion.

“I believe that is directly related to the information that we’re putting out there — that it’s OK to not be OK — and there are resources and ways you can get some help,” she said.

Telehealth is another way banks are extending the reach of mental health services, particularly in rural areas where in-person options are scarce.

FirstBank Southwest in Amarillo, Texas, adjusted its insurance plan halfway through the year to cover virtual visits with counselors through the telemedicine company Teladoc, said Kelly McDonald, director of human resources at the $1 billion-asset bank, which has more than 200 employees spread through the Texas Panhandle. Employees are charged a $30 co-pay for office visits but there is no fee for virtual sessions.

“For people who are in rural areas, that’s opening up a tremendous amount of doors that they haven’t had in the past,” McDonald said.

The bank had already been using Teladoc for other health care services, so adding virtual sessions with counselors was not a big leap.

“This was a no-brainer whatever the cost would have been,” said Andy Marshall, the bank’s president and CEO.

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